Sunday, March 31, 2019

"Mel Lewis: The View from the Back of the Band" - The Chris Smith Biography

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“Mel showed me at that time, what a drummer is capable of doing as far as being integrated as an inescapable component of the arrangement as a whole. Not just something stuck in there at the last minute. You don't replace Mel Lewis, you just hope to get somebody who's like him — maybe.”
- Don Sebesky, trombonist, composer-arranger


“Well, it boils down to the fact that Mel played music on the drums. He absorbed what everyone in the band was doing and found things to play that complimented it. His time was so relaxed that sometimes he got in trouble for it. I remember one time; while we were playing with Terry Gibbs, hearing Al Porcino pounding his heel on the floor and saying, "Let's go Mel!" Because Mel was so easy that sometimes he would drag a little bit. But, to me it was a perfect solution to big band drumming.”
- Bill Holman, tenor saxophonist, big band leader, composer, arranger


“Mel never stopped speaking up for what he believed in and he always stayed true to his belief that jazz music should be swinging and innovative. Due in part to his unapologetic honesty his career wasn't filled with the fame and fortune that other drummers achieved. Yet Mel stayed true to himself and developed artistically throughout his entire life, in turn leaving the world with a recorded legacy that is priceless.” [p. 105]
- Chris Smith, professional drummer, educator author of Mel Lewis: The View from the Back of the Band


"My whole approach to playing is reaction. I don't listen to myself play. I'm too busy listening to everything going on around me. All my body is doing is reacting to that. I augment, compliment, round out. I can make anybody sound good. I have my own style, but I play uniquely with everyone that I play with ... Sometimes I'm forcing things, making things happen another way, but I'm still reacting to everything I hear. The composition I'm creating as I play in a big band is also because of what I'm hearing ... Everything depends on your ears. If I'm busy listening to me, then I'm not hearing the rest of the band. When the band is playing as an ensemble, I'm part of that ensemble."
— Mel Lewis, clinic in Hilversum, Netherlands 1985


Early in his career, some Jazz critics dismissed Mel Lewis as a drummer with “no chops” [little technique] who played behind the beat. But as Chris Smith points out in his masterfully comprehensive biography of Mel is that - “What makes the critics' under-appreciation of Mel so incorrect is what most every musician and many listeners know: that while a band can play poorly with a great drummer, no band can be great without one.”


When you finish reading Chris’ Mel Lewis: The View from the Back of the Band - The Life and Music of Mel Lewis [Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2014], there will be no doubt in your mind - nor should there be - that Mel Lewis was one of the greatest Jazz drummers who ever lived [1929-1990].


He ranks right up there with Baby Dodds, Zutty Singleton, Gene Krupa, Chick Webb, Buddy Rich, Davy Tough, Sid Catlett, Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Shelly Manne, Louie Bellson, Joe Morello, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette and any other “signature drummer” in the history of the music. [“Signature drummer” was Buddy Rich’s term for a drummer whose style was instantly recognizable and distinctive from other drummers].


As Gerry Mulligan once put it: “There’s still not a drummer who achieved what Mel Lewis did. And I’m not sure how to describe it.”


Maybe one answer is in the following remark that Mel made to Burt Korall the author of Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz - The Bebop Years:


“I found that to really make money you had to give up music. So I gave up money.”


For forty years, Mel Lewis made music in a widely diverse range of settings that included trios, small groups and big bands.


And what a collection of big bands: Tex Beneke, Boyd Raeburn, Alvino Ray, Ray Anthony, Stan Kenton, the Terry Gibbs Dream Band, Gerald Wilson, Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band, the Thad Jones Mel Lewis Big Band and Mel Lewis and The Jazz Orchestra plus the many performances with various iterations of the WDR big band in Germany during the 1980s.


But Gerry’s point is well-taken, Mel’s footprint on Jazz is so huge - how do you describe it?


Until Chris Smith biography of Mel came along, Mel’s career was almost impossible to recount let alone describe. After reading it one is tempted to ask: Is there anyone that Mel didn’t play during a career that spanned four decades from  approximately 1950 to 1990?


Each time I started to prepare and outline for how I wanted to approach reviewing Chris Smith’s engaging biography of Mel Lewis, I’d read a little further in my notes to each chapter which then prompted me to rethink and rewrite the whole feature!


Chris’ book is much more than a mere biography of Mel, it imparts soooo much knowledge and information about the broader Jazz World in the second half of the 20th century and Mel’s role in creating of lot of it that it could easily have been entitled Drum Wisdom and Jazz Revelations: The Life and Times of Mel Lewis [1929 - 1990].


Perhaps the easiest way to begin is with Mel Lewis’ own description of who he is and what he does: “Hi, my name is Mel Lewis and I play drums and cymbals.”


Or as it it specifically stated in Chris’ biography:


“You can say I am an old man, the kids can say "Oh what does he know he is from the old school." Man, I am not from the old school! I am a musician , and I play drums and cymbals. I use cymbals that are real cymbals. It’s like driving a good car as opposed to a piece of junk, you know ... But man, once you really know how to play a drum, meaning you can play it, you know what it sounds like, and you can sit and create music on that drum, then you’ve achieved something. I don't mean play songs where you sit there playing backbeats and play a fill here and you do this there. I mean where you can actually make music on an instrument, then you'll know exactly what I am talking about.” [p. 105]


The significance of this remark is that while many drummers are apologists because of the bad rap they get for not being like other musicians [not being melody and harmony “sensitive”], Mel was proud of his instrument and the way he played it.  


Never one to downplay his own abilities, Mel took things a step further when he remarked:


"I am a unique drummer. I have a style that nobody else has. I make music happen. I make bands do things that no other band can do. Any time I've played, any band I've played in, that band has become mine. Now, I didn't do it on purpose... it just happened.” [p. 74]


What becomes apparent as you read through the 23 chapters of Chris’ biography is that Mel Lewis put a lot of thought into his approach to drumming, something you might not assume, because Mel was not a flashy or “technique drummer.


Here are some quotations that reflect how deeply Mel thought about his drumming:


  • "My whole approach to playing is reaction. I don't listen to myself play. I'm too busy listening to everything going on around me. All my body is doing is reacting to that. I augment, compliment, round out. I can make anybody sound good. I have my own style, but I play uniquely with everyone that I play with ... Sometimes I'm forcing things, making things happen another way, but I'm still reacting to everything I hear. The composition I'm creating as I play in a big band is also because of what I'm hearing ... Everything depends on your ears. If I'm busy listening to me, then I'm not hearing the rest of the band. When the band is playing as an ensemble, I'm part of that ensemble." —Mel Lewis, clinic in Hilversum, Netherlands 1985


  • Strangely, in print interviews Mel often downplayed the influence Tiny had on his drumming. However, in an interview with Will Moyle, Mel clearly stated, "Tiny played so musically, he was a big influence on my playing. That great sound out of his bass drum and his constant motion. He used what we call 'Rub-a-Dub' feel, which I use too. That is what really makes a band move ahead and play inspired, it's that 'Rub-a-Dub'."


  • [Mel was often credited with bringing a small group style of drumming into a big band setting]. “Now I am with a dance band again [Alvino Ray], but the funny bit is that bebop had completely taken me over by this time; I was really a bop drummer. And the small group thing was really coming into my head now, this way of playing. But I wasn't thinking about it that way, I didn't even realize what I was doing. I wasn't saying, "oh, I'm gonna play small group drums in a big band."


  • “Good drummers were a rarity and that's all there was to it. There's no ego problem involved, it's just there weren't many good drummers. There still aren't.”


  • “[During] his time with Kenton, Mel's softer dynamics and bebop-influenced style of big band drumming were a major influence on the band's sound. … After only a handful of times playing the [Kenton band’s] complex arrangements, he was beyond reading the chart and had already interpreted the music in his own style. Even at the young age of twenty-six, Mel had the ability to quickly memorize music and play in a way that uniquely suited each arrangement … .Mel’s light touch, bebop comping, and ability to support the ensemble without overplaying, began setting a new standard of big band drumming.” [Chris Smith]


  • “It is worth noting that the sound of Mel's drums and cymbals on Art Pepper + Eleven: Modern Jazz Classics [arrangements by Marty Paich] is an excellent representation of his "typical sound" at the time. Mel's "sound" was a combination of many aspects, two of which were his use of calfskin drumheads and tuning his drums medium-low in pitch, even when playing in a small group. His drum sound on Modern Jazz Classics is a prime example of the warm tone he pulled out of the calfskin heads and how the sound of his drums blended into the ensemble, yet were tuned high enough to cut through when needed. Another important aspect of Mel's "sound" heard on the album is his use of low-pitched cymbals and the master touch in which he played them. … Mel was physically relaxed when he played, creating so much intensity while making the whole process look effortless.” [Chris Smith]


  • “Buddy [Rich] knew the melody so well he would play the melodies along with the band. That is where I disagreed with him. He forced the music to be played like a drummer, where my bit is I play it like the band is playing. That's where him and I are opposites in big band playing. But behind it, we have the same talent for hearing. This is what he liked about me and what I liked about him. In other words, what we liked about each other was the things neither one of us could do, the respect for each other’s signature.”


  • “His cymbal colors and textures created a continually shifting sonic backdrop, and in typical Mel fashion, when it was time to swing his cymbal beat wrapped a comforting blanket of sound around the whole band. His bass drum and toms were used as both melodic voices and low register textures. Most importantly his drumming demonstrated that orchestration and patience were as powerful musical tools as chops and speed. … Mel often pushed intensity to new heights by moving from his main ride cymbal to his Chinese cymbal. At the point where other drummers may have added volume or overplayed, Mel elevated the music  by changing his cymbal sound and intensifying the texture.” [Chris Smith]


  • "Playing from hand to hand and constantly moving the cymbal pattern, gets the feeling of straight ahead motion without getting into a rigid situation. The only thing that really has to keep going and stay rigid is the hi-hat. But you never think about your hi-hat, it just goes. But you keep moving your hands with different patterns while listening to the soloist and reacting to what they play." —Mel Lewis, clinic in Hilversum, Netherlands, 1985


  • "I think drummers should create their own fills based on what they are hearing instead of the old standard fill before a dotted quarter... Drummers can create their own fills based on the music itself, based on what will follow or what proceeded.” —Mel Lewis, Modern Drummer, February 1985-


  • "When playing figures with the ensemble, duplicate its effects: loud or soft, long or short. For short sound, strike the center of the snare drum; snap the hi-hats shut tightly) press the stick into the head of a torn) make a cross-stick shot. For a long sound, strike a cymbal; hit the bass drum) instantly snapping the beater back) snap the hi-hats in an open position and let them ring. Strike a torn and let the note sustain. Strike the off-center area of the snare drum (a semi-long sound). Never, unless it is called for, play a figure with just one sound (every note sounding alike). Each note has a different texture and requires varying treatment... Always sing the figure, either aloud or to yourself. This applies when studying the figure (before playing it) and at the moment of execution. And sing with the feeling and articulation of the horn. Then duplicate this feeling on the drum set. In this way you will get a better blend between the drums and the horns." —Mel Lewis, International Musician, 1961


What also becomes apparent through a close reading of Chris Smith’s Mel Lewis: The View from the Back of the Band  is how much other musicians appreciated Mel’s approach to drumming.


  • “The thing that was so amazing about Mel was that he heard everything that was going on in the band. Mel would give it up for the band. In other words, he felt that he was not only a part of the rhythm section, but that he was a part of each section of the band. And depending on which section had the lead, whether it was a sax soli, a trombone soli, or the trumpets were leading the ensemble through the out chorus, Mel knew every part. Inside of what he did, as far as the overall sound of the drums, he would also accentuate things that other drummers would never hear. He would do it so subtly that you felt it more than you heard it. He was just so unique in his ability to be a total part of the orchestration ... He never got in the way, and Mel never made the drums a prominent instrument in the band. His sound was always something that the band sat on top of, and he was the most supportive drummer that I have ever heard. For me, I have never heard anyone be so giving musically, as part of a big band. I don’t think he ever thought of himself as a drummer, I think he probably thought of himself as just a band member. But as it ended up, he was the band!” - Marvin Stamm, trumpet player


  • “The Concert Jazz Band was my first chance to really get to know Mel and get to play music with him on a steady basis. I thought it was a hot rhythm section! I liked the sounds that he got out of his cymbals and I liked the general steam that he was able to turn on. You know it s funny, one time he told me, ‘I don't like to play what the brass section is playing, they got enough accent in their playing and they can do that on their own. If I play everything that they play they get lazy. We need to get them more up on the time. I like to play what the saxophone players are playing.’ And I thought that was a very interesting insight into his conception of playing.” - Bill Crow, bassist


  • “When Mel Lewis was with the Terry Gibbs band, he did some of the best drumming I ever heard with that band. I'm not that free with compliments, but the band was so hot. It was the most perfect way of playing drums with that band. Mel's a marvelous drummer and totally individualistic. He doesn't sound like anybody else. That's the best thing you can say about anybody, and I said it.” - Buddy Rich, drummer and band leade


  • “Through the years I played various gigs with Mel, everything from big band, to piano trio at Jazz clubs, to wedding gigs. He was always so relaxed when he played it looked like he was up there reading the paper! Mel's absolute first priority, no matter what, was the feel of the music. He knew that if it didn't feel good, neither the band nor the audience would like it. It didn't matter what you wanted to do harmonically, melodically, formally or any of that—if the music didn't start from a place of good feel, forget it! Trust your body, trust your instincts and let the music flow—it will be ok.” Peter Malinverni, pianist


  • “Mel really knew how to hear what was right for the music. Like most good musicians, he had the ability to adapt to a situation and play what was appropriate in a very natural way. He really knew how to orchestrate. What I also loved so much about Mel was his ability to "shade" the time of the music. He knew when to get up on it, and he knew when to get back on it, depending on what was happening with the band. He knew how to "dig in the stirrups," or "pull back the reins," you know. He had an amazing ability to know how and when to do that. A real gift — Adam Nussbaum, drummer


  • ”Mel was capable of contributing many things to an album, and he did it in ways that only he could do. His musical approach to drumming never forced people to play a certain way. He allowed people to play the way they play, and then he made his musical contribution while that was happening. —Jerry Dodgion, alto saxophonist


  • “He really embodied the idea of being a team player, rather than drawing attention to himself. He tried to keep the small group feeling in the big band, and I think that he proved that great music could be made without making bold technical statements. I also think that he showed that it's really possible to play a wide range of music well over the course of a career. Even though he may have been "pigeon holed" as a certain type of player, he found a way to bring life to all kinds of musical situations.” —John Riley, drummer


  • “Mel's wasn't an incredibly technical drummer, he kind of rumbled back there, but he could just explode with energy when the music called for it. He was the only drummer that I have ever played with that told me he had a specific cymbal for my sound. That really blew me away! He said, "Yeah I have a cymbal for George, I had a cymbal for Richard, and I have a cymbal for you."
  • Mel and I once recorded these play-along albums for Ramon Ricker. After recording the whole day it was suggested that since everyone had settled in we go back and rerecord the very first song. The recording engineer said, "Should I playback the tempo of the first take?" And Mel said, "No I got it."
  • So we recorded the song again and when we finished we listened back. The new version ended up being one second different than the original take! The song was six or seven minutes in length and the two recordings were done at least six hours apart. Everybody that was in the control booth kind of fell silent and looked at each other and said, "Wow that’s incredible!" Mel had a very unique internal clock; that was one of his gifts.” — Rufus Reid, bassist


  • “Mel played to make everybody else in the band sound as good as possible. He did this by thinking of their phrasing and thinking like a horn player. He was totally unselfish; he always played what the band needed.” — Jeff Hamilton, drummer


  • “Mel played very musical. All the drummers that have played with my band, after Mel left and the records came out, they sort of played the same licks that Mel played because it was almost like someone had written them out, they fit the music perfect! He was so musical.” - Terry Gibbs, vibraphonist and band leader


  • “When Mel died, it was one of the biggest losses the music ever had. People all over the world suffered. And they'll never recover. We were sitting in Cologne, a key producer and I. We said, "Mel," and were silent for five minutes because there's no replacement. All of the bands, big and small, amateur and professional, that he made sound good have to feel a terrible, terrible loss. There will never be another like him. Mel was one of the greatest drummers of all. I'd stake my life on that.” - Bob Brookmeyer, valve trombonist, band leader, composer-arranger.


There are two other main themes that Chris Smith stresses over the course of the 23 chapters that make up Mel Lewis: The View from the Back of the Band are Mel’s development as a band leader which dated back to his time on Stan Kenton’s band when he observed: “‘Stan Kenton treated his musicians like gentlemen; and he knew how to draw the best out of you. He never told anybody how to play. And I thought that was very important,’ recalled Mel. The lessons Mel learned from Kenton deeply influenced the way he treated fellow musicians when he became a bandleader.”


The other primary theme that Chris Smith underscores in his biography was Mel’s efforts to help young drummers: “Much like the love he showed for the members of his band, Mel also extended his friendship, advice, and equipment to the young jazz drummers whom he thought showed promise. Drummer Adam Nussbaum recalled his relationship with Mel:

“I really got to know Mel when I was playing with John Scofield and Michael Moore at a club "Palssons" on West 72nd street in New York City; that was not too far from where Mel lived. He showed up to the gig and saw me playing with these cats. He kind of knew about me because I was playing with some of the guys in his band like Dennis Irwin, Dick Oatts, Joe Lovano, Jim McNeely, we were all buddies. At the time I had a set of walnut finish Gretsch drums, was using old K's, and had calfskin heads on my snare and bass drum. I guess he may have seen me as a younger version of himself; I also had red hair and was Jewish. After we said hello to each other, I said, "Hey Mel why don’t you come up and play a little bit." So Mel sat in and played a couple tunes with Scofield.


After the gig was done Mel said to me, "What are you doing tomorrow? I want you to come to my house tomorrow around noon, you free?" So I went over the next day, I ring the bell, and Mel said, "Wait for me in the lobby." So I waited for him in the lobby, and then we went down to the basement, to his storage place. When we got down there he took out a snare drum and floor torn. He said, "Here man, I want you to have these." I said, "What?" He goes, "Yeah man, these match your Gretsch drums | perfectly, they stole the rest from me and I am using Slingerland now, so you should have them." Just real matter of fact, it was just so sweet of him.


Mel didn't have a son, so I think he saw a bunch of us guys in New York—of the younger generation (Kenny Washington, Danny Gottlieb, Joey Baron, Peter Erskine, and others) whom he felt had some talent—kind of like his family. He was very supportive and encouraging to us, like a father. I would have to say that he is one of my musical fathers. We'd go out to eat, we'd go to his apartment and he would sit in his big chair and play recordings that he played on. I'd bring up things that I played on. We'd listen and we'd talk. We spent time just hanging out; not necessarily talking about drums per say just talking about music and life. He watched out for the guys that he cared about. If Mel cared about you and liked you, he really took to you.”


The book concludes with over 50 pages of drum transcriptions and annotated listening guides for examples of Mel on records, a timeline of the drum equipment that Mel played on over the course of his career and a selected discography.


One couldn’t ask for a better retrospective of Mel’s career and assessment of its significance in the history of Jazz than the one that Chris Smith has researched, compiled and written for Mel Lewis: The View from the Back of the Band -The Life and Music of Mel Lewis.


Mel was so deserving of the respect that Chris’ biography puts forth in his definitive study and we are fortunate to have Chris’ outstanding treatment of this singular musician. Along with Helene LaFaro Fernandez’s biography of her brother Scott LaFaro and Michael Sparke’s biography of Stan Kenton, it assumes its honored place in the University of North Texas Lives of Musicians series.


You can locate order information about the book via this link.



Saturday, March 30, 2019

Jive for Five: The Bill Holman - Mel Lewis Quintet

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


Andex Records was one of those boutique labels that popped up now and then to produce a few Jazz recordings by up and coming Jazz artists. In many cases, these “start-up’s” gave newly formed groups their first public exposure [and sometimes their last as in many cases both the groups and the labels were “here-today, and gone-tomorrow”].


Andex was one of the various labels used to issue recordings produced and owned by Rex Productions which was owned and operated by the Siamas Brothers, John and Alex.


They started the label in 1957 working with producers Bumps Blackwell and Bob Keane and were fortunate enough to have a hit right out of the gate with vocalist Sam Cooke’s You Send Me. For more details on the label/s go here.


Based in Los Angeles, CA, Andex produced a half dozen recordings by musicians local to the area including Bill Holman, Mel Lewis, Art Pepper, Conte Candoli, Jimmy Rowles, Dempsey Wright and John Graas. All of these LP has been subsequently released as CD’s by V.S.O.P. Records.


Given the many big band accomplishments that both drummer Mel Lewis and tenor saxophonist, composer- arranger Bill Holman would have over their long and distinguished careers, I would imagine that few Jazz fans even remember the short-lived quintet they formed together in 1957.


Frankly, had it not been for their Amdex Jive for Five LP [Andex S3005; V.S.O.P. #19 CD] I would have missed the group, as well.


Bill and Mel were on the Kenton band together in the 1950’s and John Tynan, who was for many years the West Coast editor of Down Beat magazine picks up the story from there in the following liner notes that he wrote for the LP.


“Let jazzdom's professional Doubting Thomases take note: Hard-swinging, funky playing is not the exclusive property of musicians based in New York, Detroit and Chicago.


As a reference point we have the besmogged City of the Angels, stomping ground for such latter-day Gabriels as tenor men Harold Land, Teddy Edwards, Walter Benton: for bassists Leroy Vinnegar, Scott La Faro. Wilfred Middlebrooks; for altoists Herb Geller, Joe Maini, Ornette Coleman.


To this West Coast Dynamo Club must unqualifiedly be added Willis "Bill" Holman and Mel Lewis. Not only is Holman a saxophonist of force and intelligence—he's a pretty funky composer-arranger too. Lewis, a voluntary emigre from Buffalo, New York, is a deep-grooving drummer whose deity is Time.


Thrown together originally in the maelstrom of the Stan Kenton orchestra of the early '50's, the saxman and the drummer have long yearned for the freedom to relax and stretch in a small jazz group tailored to their concurrent musical ideas.


"I wanted a group and so did Bill," Lewis explains. "We realized that in working together, we stood a better chance of making it than if each took off by himself. With both of us sharing the headaches, we figured it would be much easier. And it is."


After six months, the partnership is a success. Not only is Holman (31) a wailer on either tenor or baritone sax; a brighter blessing is his remarkable talent for writing jazz for bands big or small. Moreover, Holman is growing as a serious composer. An earlier long work for small jazz group, Quartet has been recorded by Shelly Marine and His Men. In this album a further example of his extended writing for small ensemble is the title number, Jive for Five.


29-year-old Lewis is the rhythmic power plant of the quintet. According to partner Holman, "Mel is becoming quite at home in a small group. For one thing, he feels much more at ease in long solos. There's more continuity in his playing. While he catches a lot of figures played by the horns just as he would in a big band, there's a different feeling involved, too. The hard swing remains, but in the small group he's thinking in more musical terms. He's becoming more a part of the front line than a percussion section."


Although the third Kenton alumnus in the quintet, trumpeter Lee Katzman, has "... worked with more bands than I can remember," he is only lately gaining widespread recognition as a first-rate jazz soloist. A Chicagoan by birth, Katzman, now 30, joined the Kenton band in January 1956. He left in the spring of this year [1958], ". . . just in time not to go on the road."


"This album is the happiest I've ever made," Lee enthuses. "That piano player. . . And the music! It's got an awfully good feeling. It's really a pleasure to play with Bill because we have the same feeling for time."


"Walkin" Willie" Middlebrooks has been plucking plaudits on the West Coast with his impressive bass playing. A come-lately westerner, the 25-year-old Chattanoogan settled in Los Angeles in 1955 after coasting with the band of altoist Tab Smith with whom he had worked before entering the Army in spring of 1953. Of the album he comments, "Everybody played so good, but Jimmy Rowles really gassed me."


Jimmy Rowles, 40. has been gassing musicians and fans since he got his start in jazz with the great Ben Webster in the late 30's. Rowles' work with the greatest big bands parallelled their heyday in the '40's. Famed for his repertoire of thousands of tunes, Jimmy suggested the quintet record both Liza and the magnolia scented Mah Lindy Lou. 502 Blues Theme is Rowles' composition and arrangement.


Both Holman and Lewis believe their group is different, a fact immediately evident to the ear.


"Basically," says Bili, "the difference lies in the conception. In the past most so-called 'West Coast' recordings groups were pickup bands, put together for the date and then forgotten. Most musicians engaged in these sessions felt it was better to concentrate on the writing, there being little opportunity to put soul in the blowing." Hence, contends Holman (himself a native Southern Californian), the resultant music, distinct in character, came to be labeled "West Coast Jazz."


The composer is quick to point out, however, that even during this spate of pickup band recording, there were jazz groups on the West Coast who, by virtue of steadily working together, developed a unified conception and sound, permitting the soloists to step out and wail. The Holman-Lewis Quintet is the latest example of such combo unity.


Remarking that"... the sound of trumpet and tenor is one of my favorite sounds," Holman admits this instrumentation" ... is a little harder to sell to the "fringe jazz people." These listeners as a general rule tend to favor the unusual and exotic in instrumentation." He smiles. "Sorry, but we can't give 'em that. We feel we might as well say what we want the way we want."


In sum, then, Bill and Mel conceived and are employing the quintet as a cohesive unit playing unified compositions, yet with plenty of room left the soloists for free, extended jazz blowing. …


Soon to be released on Andex is a big band set of his compositions [In A Jazz Orbit Andex 3004; V.S.O.P. 25] which promises to outdo any previous Holman big band effort. It goes without saying that the gentleman in charge of rhythmic propulsion (big band department) is brisk jazzman Mel Lewis.”


—Notes by John Tynan


The following video contains the music on offer in Jive for Five "


Friday, March 29, 2019

Mel Lewis - A "Signature Drummer" - An Interview with Loren Schoenberg

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


Over the years, I’ve seen and heard Mel Lewis play in a variety of settings.


Night after night, I’d run around town to listen to him play drums in an assortment of big bands: Stan Kenton’s Orchestra, the Terry Gibbs Big Band, the Bill Holman Big Band, the Marty Paich Tentette [recording sessions], the Gerald Wilson Orchestra.


And when he wasn’t playing in big bands, I’d go hear him in small groups like the one he co-lead for a while with baritone saxophonist for Pepper Adams, or the quintet he co-led with Bill Holman or as a member of pianist Claude Williamson’s trio.


In 1963, when he permanently moved to New York to continue as a member Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band, I caught him in concert in The Big Apple with Gerry’s marvelous band. Thereafter, I heard him play with the orchestra he co-led with Thad Jones. And when Thad left to go to Europe and Mel headed up his own orchestra until his death in 1990, I also checked out that band on a number of occasions.


During each of his performances, I’d stare a lot trying to figure out how he did it what he did.


But he “did” so little that while watching him all I actually saw was the minimalist action of his hands barely moving above the drums while he popped the accents, dropped bombs and drove the band mercilessly in what drummer Kenny Washington once described as Mel’s “rub-a-dub style.”


There was no flurry of technique on display in his drumming, no aggravated animation in the motion he used in getting round the drums, no complicated fills, kicks and solos.


Watching Mel as closely as I did for as long as I did, I came away with the same impression as the one that Burt Korall formed in the following description after seeing Davey Tough with the Woody Herman band perform its famous arrangement of Apple Honey at New York City’s Paramount Theater, in 1945:


“He went about his business with little of the grace of a Krupa and Jones, and none of the fireworks of Rich. But the excitement built as Tough, without physically giving the impression of strength, manipulated the band much as an animal trainer would a beautiful hard-to-control beast, making it respond to him. He cracked the whip under the ensemble and brass solo passages adding juice and muscle to the pulse and accents. Each soloist got individual treatment – a stroke here, an accent there, a fill further on, all perfectly placed.

He moved the band from one plateau to another, higher and higher. By the time the band was about to go into the final segment, the audience was totally captured. There was a point during this last section when it felt as though the band would take us through the roof.

When the piece came to an end with four rapid bass drum strokes, I couldn’t figure out what he had done. He had been in the foreground only once during a four bar break, …, otherwise his was the least self-serving performance I had ever witnessed. I turned to my friend. ‘He has no chops. How’d he do it? What happened?’

He smiled, not quite as puzzled as I. ‘It might not have seemed like much,’ he said. ‘But whatever he did, he sure lit a fire under that band.’”


That’s it, Mel lit a fire under the band! But how?
- the editorial staff at JazzProfiles


All Jazz musicians come from someone. The concept is usually stated as Louis “Pops” Armstrong came from “King” Joe Oliver or Billie Holiday came from “Pops” or Dizzy Gillespie came from Pops and Roy Eldridge or Jackie McLean came from Bird.


Whether it was in the context of Stan Kenton’s Orchestra or the Terry Gibbs Dream Band or Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band or the band he co-led with Thad Jones, Mel Lewis big band drumming seem to come fully formed in a manner that traced back to someone, but who?


Of course, some drummers deduced that the answer was as simple - “Tiny Kahn” - but Mel would always explain that he really never knew Tiny and that while he watched Tiny with and even replaced him in the Boyd Raeburn band, that they developed their similar approaches in parallel: “Like Sonny Stitt and Charlie Parker,” he would say.


Who was Tiny Kahn and what did his drumming sound like?


Weighing over 300 pounds and suffering from the diabetes that may have caused the heart attack that killed him before the age of 30, Tiny Kahn [1923-1953] was a drummer, vibraphonist and composer arranger who worked with the big bands of Boyd Raeburn, Georgie Auld, Chubby Jackson, Charlie Barnet and Elliott Lawrence.


These bands performed primarily in New York and along the middle Atlantic states, a fact that enabled Tiny to travel to their gigs by automobile since his girth was too large for him to travel comfortably by bus, plane or train.


As a result, during the most active years of his career - 1948-1953 - Tiny was known to a relatively limited audience.


Mel Lewis describes the details of what Tiny’s sound on drums and what made their approach to drums so similar in the following excerpt from an interview that he gave to Loren Schoenberg on April 8, 1990.


I have to tell you that after listening to this interview [the spoken version is interspersed with recordings featuring Tiny’s drumming that Mel and Loren comment on], I had the feeling that Mel was protesting a little too much.


Or, to put it another way, I think that one could easily say that Mel came from Tiny even though Mel is reluctant to say it quite so directly.


Mel Lewis: “It’s tough, it’s not easy at all being a leader, period, no matter what instrument you play.  Especially drums. Because your front lines [lead trumpet and lead alto sax players] are very important, you know, and they have to agree with what you as a drummer are doing, especially if you are a “signature drummer.”


In case people don’t understand what I mean by that, that’s a word I picked up from Buddy Rich and it means people who have their own unique sound and feel and are recognizable the minute you hear them have what you call a “signature.”


They are few and far between. That’s something that everyone would like to develop and it is developed on drums the same way that Lester Young, Coltrane, Miles and all these other people did on their horns.


It’s not as easy on drums because you're still an accompanist and to get a different sound from other drummers utilizing your feel. We all have to play “ding-a-ling” or “spang-a-lang” because that’s our job as drummers, but it’s how we do it and what we do that makes it different. Remember, the drummer is still in the background, you are not out front. A drummer that puts himself out front is not a great drummer. It’s not smart, it’s stupid and, if you are gonna do that you might as well play solo.  Your group is in front of you but you have to play behind them and inspire them by being so good that you reflect your personality.


[Drummer] Tiny Kahn came out of a Brooklyn-based school of musicians back in the 1940s.


First of all he was an excellent musician. He played with extreme taste. He could swing his butt off which was a big butt that why they called him “Tiny.” He was a huge man: tall, funny and with a great sense of humor, but he was a wonderful musician including being self-taught as an arranger. He wrote some of the best music around at that time.


But as big as he was he had a light touch on the drums. And a lot of guys compare me to him and say that I carried on and brought it to another level to where I am today.


That’s possibly true except for one thing - I never really knew Tiny. He was in New York and I was in Buffalo. And when I came to New York, he was the drummer in Boyd Raeburn’s Band. And when I heard him for the first time at a free concert in Central Park I noticed that we played pretty similar.


I open the next night at the Savoy Ballroom with Lenny Lewis’ band and Tiny came up to hear me. He said the same thing - we both played very similar. And it turned out that we became very good friends and shared with each other that our influences and ideas were almost identical. We both did a lot of small group playing and when we played in a big band we both brought that small group feeling with us at a time when nobody else was doing that in the New York area.


Because of his size, Tiny never got out of New York much. He couldn’t travel on buses. Through him, I got on the Boyd Raeburn band after Lenny Lewis band folded.


Tiny, and singer Dave Lambert and Buddy Stewart and trombonist Kai Winding, pianist George Wallington and bassist Curly Russell were offered a gig at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street.


Tiny couldn’t even get on a bus - in the old days the buses were a lot smaller - so he mentioned my name to Raeburn. - by the way, Maynard Ferguson was already on the band. - and I took his place with Boyd while he made the Three Deuces gig.


I fit right in with Boyd because Tiny and I were very similar in our approach. But it was like playing with 5 pieces in a 17 piece band.


Tiny had this big ride cymbal and that same cymbal when I went on the band in 1948 had a big crack in it, kind of like a cut-out. Tiny used 15” hi-hat cymbals, which was normal for that time [later, drummers switched to 14” and 13” hi-hats which produced more of a “chick” sound that really accented the 2nd and 4th beats], but if you notice he played them really loose and he treated them like a ride cymbal.


He used a 20” [in diameter] bass drum, which was small for that time, and he played it and the other drums in a very relaxed manner. When you watched him play, here’s this big guy sitting up there hardly moving, using the wrists and the fingers to play, but not the arms. That’s why he could play the up tempos so well because he was so relaxed and not using a lot of extra body movement.


It’s a combination - like you heard me doing on the Terry Gibbs things that you played earlier - of a small group very and yet playing strong. The fills are not the same thing you’d play in a small group but basically they are coming out of Sonny Greer and Jo Jones who sort of led the way in filling up the holes a certain way.


The important thing when you play a fill is that you have to lead the band into their next note - the band can’t miss because you are overplaying the fills. Tiny was an expert at this - he’s making rhythm but he’s also making fire and making the band shout.


A good drummer can really inspire a band.


In the earlier days, bands just played ensemble and the drummer just went along playing time and might hit a rim shot here and there.


But to make this fire happen and propel the band, you really have to think like Art Blakey and Max Roach did when they played in their small groups. You play small group licks but you play them stronger on drums that are tuned deeper.


And you gotta remember that most of the drummers back in those days were playing on calf skin heads which creates a totally different sound than plastic and which blended better.


Tiny’s not making all the figures with the band he making them in between what the band is playing. I mean he’s popping some beats but he’s letting a lot of stuff float by because you should. You can’t play everything that they are playing because then you overplay and it becomes ridiculous. But Tiny’s playing was always cooking all the way and he got a great sound out of that bass drum. I mean it was constant motion.


He had that “rub-a-dub” feel which I use to because it makes the band move. It’s a shuffle beat but not a regular shuffle. It’s more like a feeling of twelve; it’s what makes a band move ahead and inspires it. And you don’t have to get on top of the beat to do it. Tiny is just sitting back there, laying back there using light sticks. All that power is coming out of light sticks and you know he’s not playing as loud as you think he is. It’s light playing even though it is still intense.


[As an aside, pencil drum sticks became all the rage on the West Coast in the late 1950s and one of the early adopters of this model was none other than - you guessed it - Mel Lewis!]


The heaviest thing he’s hitting is the bass drum and it sounds so good, who cares? It’s a beautiful, leathery sound that’s why I think all drummers, even if you have plastic heads on the rest of your drums, should have calfskin on the bass drum. You just can’t get that “thud” out of plastic. With the right size beater ball and hitting right in the middle of a 20” bass drum - there’s nothing like it.


A 20” bass drum is just the right size for most bass pedals to reach right in the center of the head. The beater ball has the best balance there to hit directly into the center of the drum.


A bigger bass drums make the beater go off center and get a boomier sound.


You can’t play a snare drum in the center because there is a feeling of resistance in the middle of the head. Most drummers including myself will play more toward the edges; you can get more ring to the snare drum there, too.


The snare center is dead, you get very little response there.  But in a bass drum, you get that hearty “thud” right in the center that just great for accents and fills.


Tiny was a very refreshing drummer. He was in that same scene when Max [Roach] was coming up and Shelly [Manne] and other New York drummer like Shadow Wilson and Denzil Best; these guys were playing in small groups around the city while the big bands were on the road in the late 1940s.


When the big band drummers would come to town [NYC], they would go to the Royal Roost and the other small, Jazz clubs on 52nd Street to hear what’s happening. It was really exciting for the guys on the road to catch up to the latest and to trying and figure out how they were going to get into that [the latest trends in Jazz drumming].


The only way you can was to stay in New York and to start playing with small groups.


That’s why for myself, I am thankful that I got so much small group playing done in the 1940s before the time that I started playing with big bands.


There was a period from 1949-1953 when I was working with dance bands that I had to go looking for jam sessions to keep my small groups chops up. Finally, many of the guys in the bigger bands started our own jam sessions so we could play more Jazz.”